Over 35% of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation and get less than seven hours per night. Although people need different amounts of sleep to feel refreshed, studies have consistently shown that less than seven hours per night can have consequences on your health.
In a survey conducted by the CDC, people that slept less than seven hours per 24 hour period, or “short sleepers,” were significantly more likely to report chronic issues. Diabetes, depression, and asthma were among the conditions that short sleepers reported more often than those who got enough rest each night.
Short-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep, simple though it may seem, is a complex biological process. During sleep, our brain rebuilds memories and helps muscles to recover. Depriving yourself of this resting time can have severe consequences on your health, particularly your immune system.
Even losing sleep for a couple of nights in a row can cause immediate negative effects. In a sleep study, adolescents spent five days sleeping only 6.5 hours per night. Even in this short period, they reported feeling more angry and tense. It doesn’t take much sleep loss to alter your body.
Sleep and the Immune System
Scientists know that there is a correlation between sleep and the immune system. Sleep loss or sleep confusion (often due to unusual working hours, like shift work) alters the immune system. While all the pathways are not well understood, the consequences are simple. You are more likely to get sick. When study participants restricted their sleep for 14 days, they were almost three times as likely to catch a cold as those who slept enough hours.
These effects on your body can also have consequences for your livelihood. Missing work days due to sickness seems unavoidable. However, sleeping enough hours each night can make missing work much less likely.
Long-Term Consequences of Short Sleep
You may be aware that sleep helps us to consolidate and rebuild memories. It’s one reason why parents are cautioned to make sure their kids sleep enough to remember what they learned in school. But you might not be aware that sleep deprivation also affects your immune system’s memory.
Researchers have proposed that sleep helps your immune system to remember previously encountered diseases. Without adequate rest, your immune system may not be able to fight invaders as well. The relationship between the immune system and sleep is strong enough that it may even affect how vaccines are designed in the future.
Another danger of long-term sleep deprivation is chronic illness. The short sleepers surveyed in the CDC study had chronic illnesses at a higher rate than those who slept enough. There is a complex immunological and inflammatory response to sleep deprivation. These consequences can’t be canceled out by recovery sleeping on the weekend and then jumping back into sleep deprivation. To truly avoid the effects of sleep deprivation, you have to take steps to improve both your sleep quality and duration.
Steps for Healthy Sleep
The first step for healthy sleep is to make time for it. Long job hours and early mornings with kids can wreak havoc on your sleep duration. Setting a bedtime for yourself may seem strange, but it has as many benefits for adults as it does for kids. People have an internal clock, called the circadian rhythm, that is calibrated by light and other factors.
It releases melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy, when it senses that it’s time for bed. This timing used to be when the sun went down, but in the age of artificial light, it needs other cues. Having a consistent bedtime and doing regular activities before bed helps this clock recognize that it’s time to go to sleep.
Another step to improve sleep is to address sources of stress. Anxiety is a common cause of insomnia. Everyone can remember a night they spent tossing and turning while worrying about an upcoming event. Some methods to reduce stress include yoga, acupuncture and keeping a journal to write down anxious thoughts.
To promote sleep, your bedroom should be designed to help you relax. There shouldn’t be a work desk hidden in the corner. Bedrooms are for two purposes – sleeping and having sex. Invest in a mattress that is comfortable for your sleeping position. Most people sleep on their sides, which requires a bed that is soft enough to indent around your hips for proper spinal alignment. It’s also a good idea to keep light and noise to a minimum. You may want to buy a white noise machine and some blackout curtains.
Poor sleep habits are a fourth reason why you may not be getting the sleep you need. Some of these bad habits can be improved with a bedtime routine. However, the activities included as part of the bedtime routine matter. Drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it’s likely to cause disturbances later in the night. Watching TV or your devices is also a bad habit. The blue wavelength light emitted from modern screens can delay the release of sleep hormones by hours. Stick to reading books or meditating before bed to get your mind into sleep mode.
Why Improve Your Sleep Habits Now?
You will immediately benefit from sleeping the hours that you need to rest properly. Your immune system will spring into action and is more likely to be successful at combating germs. Your mood may also improve. Making time for sleep is a small price to pay for the advantages of a full night’s rest.
Tuck Sleep is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources.
Tuck Sleep has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.